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Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought


Mary Efrosini Gregory

This book examines how eight eighteenth-century French theorists – Maillet, Montesquieu, La Mettrie, Buffon, Maupertuis, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire – addressed evolutionism. Each thinker laid down a building block that would eventually open the door to the mutability of species and a departure from the long-held belief that the chain of beings is fixed. This book describes how the philosophes established a triune relationship among contemporary scientific discoveries, random creationism propelled by the motive and conscious properties of matter, and the notion of the chain of being, along with its corollaries, plenitude and continuity. Also addressed is the contemporary debate over whether apes could ever be taught to speak as well as the issue of race and the family of man.


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10. Race 217


Chapter 10  Race  If you think that you have the authority to oppress me because you are stronger and more clever than me, then do not complain when my forceful arm rips open your breast to find your heart…1 —Diderot, History of Two Indias (1770–1780) THE GENEALOGY OF THE CONCEPT OF RACE Eighteenth-century naturalists recognized that by classifying similar entities, they could acquire a better knowledge of them: they could readily observe similarities in structures, quickly retrieve information about relationships that exist, analyze the information, and draw conclusions. Classification was used to represent what was known and to generate a new cycle of experimen- tation, comparisons, and theorizing. As travelers explored the world and became aware of the great diversity of humankind, scientists and philosophers tried to compile the information into a meaningful classification. Whenever they compared races, they identi- fied and compared physical characteristics, perceived intelligence, personal- ity, customs, climate, and geographical location. In 1684 the French medical doctor and traveler, François Bernier, classi- fied humanity according to four or five races in an anonymous work entitled, A New Division of the Earth, according to the Different Races of Men who Inhabit It.2 He used the term “race” [race] and “species” [espèce] inter- changeably. Bernier opens by recalling that in the past, geographers had di- 218 Evolutionism in Eighteenth-Century French Thought vided the earth according to countries or regions. He proposes something new: to divide the earth according to the physical characteristics of the peo-...

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